“What's The Spirit Doing?”
Texts: Genesis 48: 8-22
Romans 8: 18-25
By: David D. McDonald
July 19, 2020
NRSV Genesis 48:8-22
8When Israel saw Joseph's sons, he said, "Who are these?" 9Joseph said to his father, "They are my sons, whom God has given me here." And he said, "Bring them to me, please, that I may bless them." 10Now the eyes of Israel were dim with age, and he could not see well. So Joseph brought them near him; and he kissed them and embraced them. 11Israel said to Joseph, "I did not expect to see your face; and here God has let me see your children also." 12Then Joseph removed them from his father's knees, and he bowed himself with his face to the earth. 13Joseph took them both, Ephraim in his right hand toward Israel's left, and Manasseh in his left hand toward Israel's right, and brought them near him. 14But Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on the head of Ephraim, who was the younger, and his left hand on the head of Manasseh, crossing his hands, for Manasseh was the firstborn. 15He blessed Joseph, and said, "The God before whom my ancestors Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, 16the angel who has redeemed me from all harm, bless the boys; and in them let my name be perpetuated, and the name of my ancestors Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude on the earth."
17When Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand on the head of Ephraim, it displeased him; so he took his father's hand, to remove it from Ephraim's head to Manasseh's head. 18Joseph said to his father, "Not so, my father! Since this one is the firstborn, put your right hand on his head." 19But his father refused, and said, "I know, my son, I know; he also shall become a people, and he also shall be great. Nevertheless his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall become a multitude of nations." 20So he blessed them that day, saying, "By you Israel will invoke blessings, saying, 'God make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh.'" So he put Ephraim ahead of Manasseh. 21Then Israel said to Joseph, "I am about to die, but God will be with you and will bring you again to the land of your ancestors. 22I now give to you one portion more than to your brothers, the portion that I took from the hand of the Amorites with my sword and with my bow."
NRSV Romans 8:18-25
18I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Have you ever felt like Joseph must have felt - that his father was playing a real switcheroo? Of course, that’s the way Jacob had lived his life. He duped his brother out of his birthright and his father’s blessing. He had looked favorably upon Joseph, giving the youngest special treatment. Now, Joseph stands watching as the next generation is being set up to perpetuate the bitter rivalry, envy, jealousy and dysfunctional relationships of Joseph and his brothers. Isn’t the Spirit going to intervene? Who will put and end to this circle of human sin? Who will watch over these boys when the days of bitterness and violence come? What’s the Spirit doing? Why shouldn’t the hands of blessing be switched? Must every generation perpetuate an atmosphere of violence and hatred? How true are the words of apostle Paul to the Romans:
“20for the creation was subjected to futility,…”
Even in our time the stage is set for sibling rivalry and bitterness. Consider this scene:
The time for her delivery was very near. The young woman must have been well into her seventh month of pregnancy, perhaps her eighth. She was very pregnant and her four-year-old son was very active. He was dressed in white pants and a pastel shirt – a real, live tornado that should have been on one of those TV commercials for laundry detergents. His mother would surely have a load of laundry to do by the time she arrived at home.
She had that look that seems common to mothers-to-be with one on the way and one on the knee. Tiredness and fatigue showed all over her face and just finding enough energy to stand up and retrieve her youngster from across the room one more time where she was waiting to see the doctor seemed like a real battle of mind over body. With the hope of keeping him quiet for a short while, she searched for a book to read. She picked up A Children’s Story Bible and flipped through it until she found one to her fancy. She called her son over and sat him on her knee, because there wasn’t enough room on her lap. The story was about Jesus going to the temple to pray and studying with the rabbis when he was twelve. The boy seemed to take particular joy in the fact that Jesus could be lost and his parents had to search for him. It was clear that he really identified with that.
Another lady had been watching them and with a great big smile on her face she said:
“He enjoys being read to, doesn’t he?”
“Yes, he does,” replied the mother.
“The stories are never long enough, are they?” the lady replied.
“No,” said the mother, “and his chair,” patting what was left of her lap, “is pretty small and uncomfortable. You should have heard his prayer last night! ‘Lord please get the baby born so I can sit on mother’s lap again.’”
The waiting room howled with laughter, because everyone knew, as did this mother, that the birth of the baby only meant that her lap would be filled with something visible and had a face. The child’s prayer would soon be answered, but probably not the way he had in mind. He would soon receive that for which he prayed, but he would not appreciate the gift. There would, for a long time to come be another on mother’s lap. This mother’s labor would just begin with childbirth. There would be sighs and groans and travail. A new day was coming and I suspect there would be many tears of anger and frustration as well as joy. The competition, the sibling rivalry, the shouting, and the fights were already on the horizon. The lessons of helping, sharing, tolerating, accommodating were all yet to be learned. Even at this tender age, sin stood knocking at the door. Only by God’s grace would the miracle happen that they would actually grow up to love each other, this would surely be a triumph for God’s Spirit. Some seem forever jealous and never resolve their rivalries. It took years and a huge pile of trouble before Joseph and his brothers finally embraced and put the past behind.
It should come as no surprise that the apostle Paul deliberately chooses the language of childbirth to describe “life in the Spirit.” For Paul, the world in tumult was evidence not of its demise, but its new birth. The anger of the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and Roman authorities over the message of Jesus Christ was like that of a jealous child born first. They did not understand that everyone Jesus choose to look upon with favor was a child of God. We are all adopted sons and daughters, brothers and sisters of Christ, by the Almighty’s choice. None of us are perfect and none deserve to enter the Kingdom on our own merits. Only because of grace are we able to enter. Like the sheep in Ezekiel, we are prone to push and shove and trample under foot. The Spirit’s work among us is nothing short of miraculous. What we cannot accomplish on our own, God does for us.
In some parts of the country there are rising concerns for wildfires and floods. No one should minimize the effects these fires or floods have had. They are part of creation that seems to have gone awry. However, scientists also tell us that these are part of the flow of life. It is nature’s opportunity to clear away the dense, dry underbrush so that seeds can fall to the ground and germinate and grow new trees. The wildfires often reflect an aging forest that is ready to undergo a transformation. The old is consumed and the new emerges from the ashes – much like the Phoenix in mythology. It is also true that floods open leave behind a new layer of top soil.
In other parts of the country, there are grave concerns about the possibility of having a major hurricane or slow moving tropical storm that forces evacuations in the middle of this raging pandemic. Where can one go and maintain social distancing and proper hygiene when the flood waters rise?
Whether human causes are involved seems to be of considerable debate though it does seem clear and logical that construction and development would affect the lands they are changed by development as well as those near by. Nevertheless, it is also the case that plants and animal life are adapting to the conditions and somehow, by God’s grace, life moves forward. I was watching a program not long ago that showed the areas around Mt. St. Helens that were devastated years ago by volcanic eruptions. No one thought that life would return as quickly as it did to these areas. Again, that which was consumed by fire has been transformed.
As we reflect upon the Spirit that moves among us, we are forced to conclude that God was about the radical and serious change of religious life and behavior. The ministry and mission of Jesus Christ and his followers were resisted for all sorts of reasons. Yet, as the Gospel was proclaimed it swept like a wildfire across the Roman Empire. From time to time the religious life of God’s people has gone through such transformations. The Protestant Reformation in Europe and the Revivalist movements in our country come to mind. Yet, we do not see evidence of deep religious transformation in every age nor should we expect it. Rather, it is a matter of God’s timing. The Spirit will lead and His people will respond. It is worth noting that the disciples waited upon the Spirit and continued in their habit of praying, fasting, and breaking bread together. They did not try to force the Spirit into their time frame and they were willing to listen and discern the Spirit’s movements among them. When the time came for the Spirit to sweep across the landscape it did so like a wildfire that no one could stop. Like a roaring and mighty wind it blew where it would and the seeds of faith were cared to the four corners of the Earth.
Today, we often hear with great concern and fervor:
“Where’s the Spirit? What’s the Spirit doing?”
The question is asked as if either God were dead and creation is spinning out of control, or we by some Herculean effort could bring the Kingdom to dwell here on Earth. Neither is the case. Rather, the Spirit is abiding among us. The Spirit is always with us. Christ promised that wherever two or three are gathered there will He be. We can most assuredly take confidence in the fact that the love of God remains. It has been so from the beginning. We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.
We are bearers of the light and not its creator. We harness the wonders of nature, but do not create them. Though far more sophisticated then our ancient ancestors, in some sense we still find fire and carry it with us for cooking, heating, and light. It goes with us because we have chosen to carry it. In some sense, that is also what Pentecost is all about. It is a matter of the disciples giving voice to the Spirit’s message, which is like fire in the air, just waiting for a place to alight. Without the Spirit our communication is incomplete. We are unable to speak the language of faith without the Spirit’s assistance. The Gospel spreads at the behest of the Spirit and we are the mouthpieces.
Paul Actemeier in his commentary on Romans in the Interpretation series writes:
“Without the Spirit we are simply at a loss to know how to communicate with God. That is the legacy of human rebellion and sin. If that communication is to be restored, God will have to do it.”
So, not only is the Spirit’s participation essential for speaking the faith to one another; it is also essential for our communication with God. Watching for the Spirit’s movement is also about patience. It is waiting for the Spirit to inaugurate a taste for renewal. As the Spirit swept across Jerusalem in the days of the early church, it was clear that the moment of God’s choosing had arrived. The people of God, like those storm chasers on the Weather Channel, wait and go to and fro feverishly and then realize, sometimes at their peril, that the forces behind the scene are in control and all their sophisticated diagnostic tools are only giving hints at what is about to happen. Our burdens can never be lifted too soon. Our dreams can never be fulfilled quickly enough. God’s Spirit comes in the Lord’s time and not ours and it is often difficult to bear. Calvin writes:
“Hope then ever draws patience with it.”
To wait upon the Lord, then, not only requires patience, but it must also be grounded in hope. We hope, in that which is not seen. The disciples waited upon the Spirit at Pentecost because of their belief that Jesus who rose from the dead knew what he was talking about and they could count on these things to come to pass. In speaking to them he instructed them to wait in Jerusalem and that is what they did. Their hope was in Christ and therefore they could wait with patience.
We return to the question that Pentecost raises:
“Where’s the Spirit?”
The answer to that question is, “God knows!” That is not a statement of frustration or of impatience, but of confidence. It is the simple recognition that I do not need to know. God will reveal those things in time as we have need. The important thing is to be about our Lord’s business. That business is best summed up with two commandments:
The first is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, and soul.
The second is to love our neighbor as ourselves.
In living life by these two guidelines we provide a pair of lens by which we may see the Spirit’s activity in the world. May God bless us to serve others as he has blessed us. Amen!